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- Helen Wollaston
Platt (née Myatt), Beryl Catherine, Baroness Platt of Writtle (1923–2015), engineer, local government politician, and public servant, was born on 18 April 1923 at Holmwood, Westleigh Avenue, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, the daughter of Ernest Myatt (1889–1950), bank clerk, and his wife, Dorothy Emma Matilda Sarah, née Wood (1899–1951). Her father worked at the Standard Bank of South Africa in London. He had joined the forces at the outset of the First World War and spent most of the ensuing conflict as a prisoner of war. Beryl’s mother had been a signaller on Southend Pier during the war and could transmit in Morse code. She joined the bank after the war, one of the first women to do so, and met Beryl’s father; they married in London in 1921.
As a child Beryl Myatt was shy and bookish. When she was eight, she was joined by a younger brother, James (1931–1982). Both James and her father were extroverts, the life and soul of any gathering. Beryl took after her mother, being more studious. Educated in the main at Westcliff High School for Girls, she took seven subjects for matriculation, including further maths, and obtained distinctions in them all, the first girl from the school to do so. A prefect in the sixth form, she went on to study pure and applied mathematics, physics, and chemistry.
Beryl Myatt spent a year at Slough High School for Girls after being evacuated away from the coast in the early years of the Second World War. The headmistress, herself an old Girtonian, encouraged her to apply to Girton College, Cambridge, where she gained a place to study mathematics, her favourite subject. The government offered her a state bursary if she read one of six subjects valuable for the war effort. The promise of ￡25 per week (‘a fortune to me at the time’ [personal knowledge]) persuaded her to switch subjects to aeronautics. The first of her family to go to university, she was one of only five women out of 250 engineering students in her year. The mistress of Girton College was Helen Wodehouse, who had been the first woman to hold a professorial chair at the University of Bristol. Only nine women had ever read engineering at Cambridge University when Beryl arrived. Despite passing the mechanical science tripos with honours in 1943, she was awarded only the ‘title of degree’ as Cambridge did not award degrees to women until 1948. Girton did, however, make her an honorary fellow in 1988.
When she left Cambridge in July 1943, Beryl Myatt was directed to war work at Hawker Aircraft Ltd by C. P. Snow, then head of the Appointments Board. As a technical assistant in the experimental flight section of the Design Office, she looked at performance data obtained on experimental flight trials. She worked on fighter planes, including the Hurricane, famous by then for its role in the Battle of Britain, alongside the designer Sydney Camm. ‘I arrived in the Hawkers experimental flight test department at Langley, Buckinghamshire and you could see by the look in the men’s eyes, My God there’s a war on and we’ve got a woman engineer too! I couldn’t ever let anyone down. We were testing and producing fighters which really made a difference to winning the war’, she later recalled (‘Inspiring Women Engineers’, 9).
Beryl Myatt became interested in air safety and in 1946 moved to the civilian airline industry, joining the research department of the newly established British European Airways, which ran scheduled flights between the British Isles and Europe. As technical assistant in the performance and analysis section of their Project Department, her work involved testing new aircraft and ensuring compliance with safety rules formulated by the Air Registration Board and the International Civil Aviation Organisation. She left that employment when she got married on 22 October 1949 to Stewart Sydney Platt (1923–2003), also from Essex, who had left the Royal Navy after the war to work in his family’s textile business.
As a young wife and mother of two children, Roland (1951–2014) and Victoria (b. 1953), Beryl Platt soon established a young wives’ group at the local church. This was the start of a long career in public life, being elected as a Conservative to Chelmsford Rural District Council in 1958 and to Essex County Council in 1965. Education, planning, and highways were her principal interests. She took endless care over housing and planning issues and was forever available to discuss her constituents’ housing needs. In 1969 she was part of a British delegation to Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland, sharing her experience on the importance of technical education. From 1971 to 1983 she chaired Essex County Council’s education committee, which, in her hands, was practically a full-time job, and in 1981 she became vice-chair of the council. She brought tremendous energy, ability, and commitment to her work in education and local government, becoming a governor of numerous schools and colleges, preparing for every meeting at whatever cost in midnight oil, giving the prizes at what seemed like every school in the county, usually with an inspirational speech on girls and science, and determined that educational provision in Essex should be planned, not an accidental development. A great Essex patriot, she worked tirelessly for the good of her village and her county. She believed deeply in the importance of local government, later taking up a national role as vice-president of the Association of County Councils, and took pride in co-operating with her political opponents.
Platt was made a CBE in the queen’s birthday honours in 1978 and a life peer in 1981 by Britain’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, taking the name Baroness Platt of Writtle after the Essex village which had been the family home since 1953. The only female engineer in the House of Lords, her maiden speech was on the subject of further education.
When the Engineering Council was established in 1981, Platt was appointed to the board—the only woman among the seventeen board members. In 1983, the home secretary, Willie Whitelaw, appointed her as chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), where she was remembered for always having a screwdriver in her handbag, useful for minor repairs. She did away with her appointed speech-writer, insisting on writing everything herself. During her tenure, from 1983 to 1988, she stressed the need for equal educational opportunities for girls, and the EOC backed numerous claims and initiatives for equality at work and in retirement, including a case to allow women to work on oil rigs and a case which entitled men to a bus pass at the age of sixty, the same as women.
The year 1984 saw the birth of the campaign which remains one of Platt’s most significant legacies. Women into Science and Engineering, a campaign established by the EOC and the Engineering Council to promote opportunities for girls in science and engineering, was launched in January 1984 on the back of the Finniston Report into the state of engineering in the UK, initially as a one-year initiative but soon leading to the permanent establishment of WISE, covering mathematics, technology, construction, and manufacturing, as well as science and engineering. Platt devoted twenty-five years to the campaign as chair and then patron. A tall but clumsy figure, forever in forward motion, scarcely aware of obstacles and expecting the best from others, she was something of a force of nature in the worlds of education and engineering. As her staff learned from experience, people found that ‘You can’t say no to Beryl’ (private information). During the 1980s and 1990s, she raised over ￡2.5 million in sponsorship for a fleet of specially converted WISE vehicles, designed as mobile technology laboratories to provide hands-on experience of technological and scientific experiments to thirteen- and fourteen-year-old girls. The first WISE bus, a converted double-decker, was launched outside 10 Downing Street by Thatcher, herself a scientist. Over a period of nineteen years, six WISE buses and an articulated trailer visited 4500 schools, giving over 370,000 secondary-school-aged girls an opportunity to discover the joys of engineering and technology. Many of these girls were inspired to become engineers and pioneers in their own right—one becoming a captain in the Royal Navy, another the first woman to be chief engineer at Network Rail. In 2002 Platt was presented with a WISE lifetime award by the campaign’s royal patron, Princess Anne, the princess royal, and she retained an active interest in WISE until her death.
Baroness Platt was a passionate advocate of technical education. She served on the City and Guilds Board from 1974 to 1994, on the Cambridge University Appointments Board between 1975 and 1979, and as vice-president of the University of Manchester Institute for Science and Technology (1985–92), chancellor of Middlesex University from 1993 to 2000, president of the Association of Science Education (from 1998), and chair of the board of governors of Great Baddow School, one of Britain’s first comprehensives. An honorary fellow of the Women’s Engineering Society, in 1988 she became one of the first women to be elected a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, which has a portrait of her on its walls.
Platt firmly believed that everyone, girls as well as boys, should study physics and chemistry up to the age of sixteen. As a member of the House of Lords, she joined the Select Committee on Science and Engineering and remained active even after being granted leave of absence from the House of Lords on grounds of ill-health in 2010, writing, for example, to the minister for universities and science in 2011 about the importance of government investment in the campaign to promote engineering careers to girls. She was made a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Engineers, who in 2013 established an award in her name for new entrants to the profession. The Baroness Platt of Writtle award recognises outstanding candidates achieving registration as an incorporated engineer. The year after her death, it was fitting that the award was won by Gemma Lonsdale, senior engineer officer of the RAF’s Typhoon Squadron. In Platt’s time at Hawker Aircraft, she had worked on the first fighter to be called a Typhoon.
Platt’s time at the Equal Opportunities Commission made her a firm believer in equality of opportunity. She joined a vigil outside Lambeth Palace when the General Synod of the Church of England made its decision to allow women to become priests. She was predeceased by her husband, and by her son Roland, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2014. She herself died on 1 February 2015, at Field House nursing home in Harpenden, of bronchopneumonia and other causes. She was survived by her daughter, Vicky, who ran an accountancy practice in Hertfordshire.
Speaking on the occasion of WISE’s twenty-fifth anniversary, Anne Minto, who knew Beryl Platt through her time as human resources director at British Gas/Centrica, where Platt became a board member after leaving the EOC, summed up the profound impact she made on the lives of others: ‘an absolute inspiration to so many women who have looked to your technical achievements and your outstanding leadership qualities and that has given them hope and courage to say that if Beryl Platt can do it, so can I’ (Anne Minto, address, 2009, WISE papers, IET).
- C. R. Chapman and J. Levy, ‘An engine for change: a chronicle of the Engineering Council’, 2004, www.engc.org.uk/about-us/our-purpose-and-organisational-structure/history/, accessed 15 August 2018
- WISE News (Spring 2004)
- Baroness Platt of Writtle, A life of surprises (privately printed, 2009)
- ‘Inspiring women engineers’, Royal Academy of Engineering, 2009, www.raeng.org.uk/publications/reports/inspiring-women-engineers, accessed 15 August 2018
- The Times (4 Feb 2015)
- The Independent (10 Feb 2015)
- Daily Telegraph (25 Feb 2015)
- B.M. Stephens, Royal Aeronautical Society, 27 Feb 2015, www.aerosociety.com/news/obituary-baroness-platt-of-writtle/, accessed 15 August 2018
- ‘Alumna, the Rt Hon Baroness Platt of Writtle 1923-2015’, 2 March 2015, U. Cam., department of engineering, www.eng.cam.ac.uk/news/alumna-rt-hon-baroness-platt-writtle-1923-2015, accessed 15 August 2018
- B. Stephens, Women’s Engineering Society, casino online vietnamwww.wes.org.uk/content/beryl-platt-obituary, accessed 15 August 2018
- ‘The History of WISE’, www.wisecampaign.org.uk/history/, accessed 15 August 2018
- WW (2015)
- personal knowledge (2019)
- private information [Victoria Platt, daughter; Rhodri Davies, son-in-law] (2019)
- R. Taylor, pigment print, 2008, NPG
- photograph, c. 1940s, Hawker Aircraft, repro. in Daily Telegraph (25 Feb 2015) [see illus.]
- photograph, with Frank Murphy at his wedding, 1945, SSPL/Getty Images
- two photographs,1983, United News/Popperfoto/Getty Images
- photograph, 1981, Photoshot
- photograph, 1983, Photoshot
- photograph, 1985, Photoshot
- three photographs, 1997, Photoshot
- I. Nicholson, photograph, 2009, PA Images
- photograph, 1984, University of Salford photographic collection
- photograph, repro. in Platt, A life of surprises (privately printed, 2009)
- photograph, with Professor David Newland, 2001, U. Cam., department of engineering
- obituary photographs